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Protestors voiced their displeasure at a Families First Rally at the convention center downtown on Saturday. Photo by Edward Brown.

Images of crying children detained in cages and separated from their parents have struck a nerve in Fort Worth. 

Several-hundred people flocked to the main lobby of the Fort Worth Convention Center Saturday morning with signs that read, “Families Belong Together” and “Familias Unidas.” Dubbed the Families First Rally, the event was organized by the Texas Democratic Party, Indivisible Fort Worth, and several other civil rights-minded organizations in response to reports of thousands of children being forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border while their parents await immigration court proceedings. The Texas Democratic Convention, held in Fort Worth last week, allowed several high-profile politicians to speak about the issue.

Guadalupe “Lupe” Valdez, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and longtime Dallas County sheriff, opened by saying that a lot of people are “hurting right now.” 

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The voices of crying children along the border left her in tears, she said.

“No child should ever have to cry like that,” she said. “We should do what is best without hurting people. First, do no harm.”

State Rep. Al Green drew the loudest cheers that morning.

“If you can witness this,” he said, “if you can hear babies crying ‘mommy,’ if you can hear the cry of these children for days, if your heart does not overwhelm your head, it says your heart has hardened to the extent that you are not fit to be president of the United States.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, citing a “203-percent” increase in illegal border crossings between March 2017 and March 2018, announced the new “zero tolerance policy” last April. Among several new law enforcement guidelines were directives to separate children from their parents at immigration detention centers. To many, the policy fulfills pre-election pledges by Donald Trump to stem the flow of Mexican immigrants, whom Trump publicly described as “rapists” and criminals at the time.

Criticism of the policy was quick and blunt, both by many conservative and liberal U.S. politicians and the United Nations’ top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who recently said the “thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” 

As recently as two weeks ago, Sessions defended his policy, casting blame on migrant families for the break-ups.

“If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then the Department of Homeland Security will arrest you, and the Department of Justice will prosecute you,” he said to a group of law enforcement officials. 

In tweets and public statements, Trump falsely blamed congressional Democrats for the child separations and stated that only congressional action could fix the problem before issuing an executive order that began to fix the problem. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said 1,995 children were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31 of this year. 

Speakers at the rally were aware of the executive order but said that the crisis isn’t over until every child is returned to his or her parent or parents. 

“The administration said they are ending this policy, but there are a lot of kids who are separated from their families,” Congressman Marc Veasey, whose district includes large chunks of Tarrant County, told the crowd. “No one knows how they will be reunited. We need to make sure that we keep this in the face of the American public until every child is put back with their parents. These kids will be suffering from separation anxiety. This is unfair.” 

The crisis has had at least one positive outcome. Nonprofits representing persons held in immigration jails have seen record levels of donations. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) raised $18 million through an online Facebook fundraiser. RAICES said the funds will be used to post bond for parents and provide them with legal counsel, among other benefits. A Facebook comment posted by RAICES recently said the donations are “a profound rejection of the cruel policies of [the Trump] administration.”

Local school teacher and 12th Congressional District hopeful Vanessa Adia, who spoke toward the end of the Families First Rally, said Americans should empathize with the plight of mothers who have had their children taken from them at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“When I heard the cries of these children, I heard my own two daughters,” she said. “I imagined the heartbreak I would feel if my own children were separated from me. Our fight is not over until these families are reunited.”l

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